CTE Debate Moves From Football to Soccer

Concussion Legacy Foundation diagnoses 4 former pros amid contested summit on brain injury
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 16, 2023 12:05 PM CDT
Next Frontier on CTE: Soccer
Boston University School of Medicine scientist Ann McKee speaks with researchers following a meeting held to launch a seven-year study into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, at the school June 1, 2016, in Boston.   (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

English soccer star Jimmy Fryatt was known for his ability to head the ball, and the proof of his prowess may be in the damage it did to his brain. Still physically fit in his late 70s, the AP reports that the late Fryatt played tennis but couldn’t keep score or remember which side of the net he was supposed to be on. He lived in Las Vegas for almost 50 years but started to get lost while riding his bicycle in the neighborhood. “I had to put a tracker on him,” his wife, Valerie, said this week. A North American Soccer League champion who played 18 years in Britain, Fryatt is one of four former professional soccer players newly diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The Concussion Legacy Foundation said Tuesday that English pro and Oregon State head coach Jimmy Conway, Scottish and Seattle NASL midfielder Jimmy Gabriel, and NCAA champion Franny Pantuosco also were found to have the degenerative brain disease that has been linked to concussions. The diagnoses come as soccer officials gather in Chicago for a Head Injury Summit, a conference cohosted by US Soccer and the top American men’s and women’s pro leagues that promises "two days of presentations and panel discussions led by medical professionals, stakeholders and researchers." But CTE researchers and families of those affected say that the agenda, the guest list—and even the name—belie a desire to only give the appearance of confronting brain injuries.

"(I) ... have a jaded point of view about these summits," says Dr. Ann McKee, director of the renowned Boston University CTE Center. "I think they’re largely a PR stunt." The agenda lists panels conducted by scientists, soccer officials, and unnamed current and former players. But no researchers from the BU CTE Center were invited to speak, even though McKee and Robert Cantu are two of the most-published and most outspoken in the field. BU researchers have diagnosed more than 100 football players with CTE. Cases among soccer players have been less common, but researchers expect the numbers to increase now that those who began playing the growing sport as children are reaching old age.

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“It’s not good for business, I assume,” said Bruce Murray, a former US national team member who has gone public with his cognitive difficulties. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously. Fryatt and Conway both died in 2020. Conway revealed 10 years before his death that he'd been diagnosed with dementia. Gabriel's family reported cognitive difficulties and depression for the last dozen years of his life before he died in 2021. Pantuosco also died in 2021. All four had the most severe stage of the disease, McKee said. (Read more chronic traumatic encephalopathy stories.)

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